Finding flow in collaboration

We started after breakfast, me unpacking colored paper, a pad of poster-sized pages, and a collection of happy office supplies (highlighters, markers, gel pens, post-its, tabbies, and eraser tape, for those who like that sort of thing, like me).

On sheets of pink, green, purple and blue, I scribbled out our rough plot lines and separately, lists of characters. Post-its here and there captured excited exclamations that didn’t quite have a place yet. We sat, knee to knee, bantering, puzzling, arguing, creating.

And then somehow we looked up and it was nearly 2 o’clock. Hours had dissolved as we schemed.

I realized, for the first time in a long while, I’d found flow.

Named by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is a state of consciousness that he describes as being completely absorbed in an activity. People experiencing flow are unselfconscious, acting effortlessly, not worrying about how they look or if what they are doing is “right.” They are essentially “in the zone.”

And let me tell you, this zone is amazing. My friend Heather and I took the zone to lunch with us, and then spent the afternoon plotting so that when 7 o’clock rolled around, nearly 10 hours had passed with us in intense concentration. We felt exhausted but exhilarated.

An entire book storyboarded! (Blurred because you’ll have to buy the book, of course!)

Csikszentmikalyi writes that flow can be best experienced in activities that are challenging and require skill–not too easy that people will be bored, but not too hard that they give up. And, to achieve flow, activities must have clear and immediate feedback, so that people know if they are doing the activity properly or not. A lot of flow research has examined masters in sports and music like Tiger Woods and Yo-Yo Ma, for instance. With their chosen activities, it’s completely evident whether or not something is right. The ball goes where it’s supposed to or it doesn’t; the note is on key, or it’s not.

Although I’ve certainly experienced flow–I can lose entire days in the garden or kitchen–I rarely find it in my primary activity: writing. I realize it’s because I do not often have immediate feedback. For academic writing, formal feedback can take months, thanks to protracted journal review processes. Blog posts may garner a few comments, but I don’t always know when something is well received or terrible. Feedback takes for-ever. And so I worry over words and ideas. For journal articles, I often feel overwhelmed or stuck on a concept I can’t quite articulate. And let me tell you, there’s no flow with writer’s block.

After thinking for a couple days, I know now that this week’s super flow had a lot to do with collaboration. Heather and I plotted out two entire books, in detail, with twists and turns and elaborate character back stories. And the reason we were so successful is that we could bounce ideas and disagree with each other when something didn’t make sense, seemed cheesy, or was too dramatic to be realistic. And we weren’t starting our adventure blind. Both of us trained as journalists, spent decades (between us) working in communication professions, honing our craft. The task was perfectly matched to our skill sets. Oh and did I mention it was SO fun?!

I’ve also started to think about this collaborative flow business with academic writing, especially after having worked closely and successfully on three different projects with three different friends in the last year. I’m finding it so much more rewarding and a heck of a lot easier to produce scholarship in partnership with other smart people.

And it seems that people who can find flow in their activities will be a lot of happier in life (check out Csikszentmikalyi’s TED talk). So whether your passion is writing, gardening, flying, fishing, sports, mechanics, whatever, if you can find flow, life will be that much more meaningful.


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